Meteorite hunters converge on area after fall in Va.

Fist-size space rock crashed through roof of Lorton doctors' office

  • This meteorite lit up the night sky Monday and drilled through the roof of a Lorton, Va., doctors' office.
This meteorite lit up the night sky Monday and drilled through… (Photo by Linda Welzenbach )
January 22, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance | Baltimore Sun reporter

Meteorite hunters are descending on Washington's Virginia suburbs this week, drawn by news of a space rock that lit up the night sky on Monday and drilled through the roof of a Lorton doctors' office.

Steve Arnold, co-star of the Science Channel's TV series "Meteorite Men," grabbed an early-morning flight Thursday from Arkansas to Baltimore to launch a search for fragments of the meteor.

He was joined by Michael R. Hankey, an amateur astronomer from Freeland who was bitten by the meteorite-hunting bug last July after he snapped a photo of a fireball meteor that fell over the Maryland- Pennsylvania state line.

Both men searched in vain for that "Mason-Dixon meteorite." But this time is different.

"In this case, we've got a building with a hole in the roof. There goes all the guess work," Arnold said via cell phone as he followed Hankey's car toward Lorton. "I'm driving to the hole in the roof right now."

That roof was supposed to shelter the offices of the Williamsburg Square Family Practice, where Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi see patients every day. They were still at work at about 5:45 p.m. Monday when they heard a crash in an empty examining room.

"The first thing I thought of was that Dr. Gallini's bookshelf fell on him," Ciampi told a WUSA9 TV crew. The fist-size rock had crashed through the roof, a fire wall and the room's ceiling tile before it hit the floor and shattered.

It was the first known meteorite fall in Virginia since 1924, according to the Smithsonian Institution, and the first meteorite to strike a building in the U.S. since September 2003, when a 44-pound rock smashed from the roof to the basement of a home in New Orleans. No one was hurt.

The Channel 9 TV crew took the Lorton meteorite to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Linda Welzenbach, the museum's meteorite curator, said it weighed in at slightly more than two-thirds of a pound. She identified it as a stony "ordinary chondrite."

"It's 'ordinary' because 85 to 90 percent of everything that falls is this type," she said. "It has a light gray interior with little, tiny iron, nickel metal particles," all covered by a black fusion crust that melted as the rock entered the atmosphere.

Its spectacular arrival Monday evening was witnessed by hundreds of people from southern New Jersey to southwestern Virginia. More than 120 reported the event in comments to The Baltimore Sun's online WeatherBlog.

They described a brilliant, colorful fireball that broke into several pieces as it fell through the twilight, leaving a sinuous trail of smoke glowing in the sunset.

"Ken," in Baldwin, wrote: "It appeared to break up slightly as it fell and almost seemed to sparkle like a firework would. It was an awesome sight between the orange/pink color of the horizon, the navy blue of the sky and the moon. The trail stayed in the sky for a number of minutes and seemed to have a slight crook or bend to it."

Reports that the meteor split up as it fell are heartening to Arnold, Hankey and other meteorite hunters. "This definitely has the potential of rocks landing on rooftops, on streets, in yards and ballparks," Arnold said.

A meteor fall in the Chicago suburbs in March 2003 produced scores of meteorites along an 11-mile swath. "I found 113 pieces in 44 days of hunting up there," he said.

The incentive is money. Arnold said a meteorite the size of the Lorton stone could be worth as much as $10,000 to the owner of the property where it's found. But Welzenbach scoffed.

"Oh, that's too much," she said. Fortunately for the museum, the Lorton doctors and their landlord have donated their meteorite to the Smithsonian. "We hope to have it on display very soon so the general public can come and see it."

But if others turn up, Arnold said, "then I'll get in a buying mode." He won't be alone.

Eric Wichman, meteorite hunter, collector and dealer at MeteoritesUsa.com, is also on the hunt, urging residents to report any new finds to his Web site, where he said the Lorton stone "probably has baby brothers and sisters."

"People should be on the lookout for black rocks, with fusion crust," he told WeatherBlog readers. "Check yards, roads, sidewalks, baseball fields, farm fields or anywhere else meteorites could have fallen."

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